Another wave of terror

To make sure he wins next year's presidential election, Robert Mugabe is using violence to get rid of the whites and subjugate the black population. RW Johnson reports.

SCENES OF LOOTED farmhouses, burnt crops, imprisoned farmers and the evacuation of terrified white families leave no doubt that full-scale ethnic cleansing is underway in Zimbabwe. Less visible, though on a far larger scale, is the fate of thousands of black farmworkers and their families who have fled into communal lands, to the towns or to South Africa. Many have already been badly beaten or tortured by mobs orchestrated by the ruling Zanu-PF party, who presume they are opposition supporters.

Both features, the elimination of the white farming community and the total subjugation of the rural black population, are part of a conscious strategy that Mugabe has developed since he first came to power February 1980. To mask his purposes from the outside world he has erected a smokescreen of rhetoric about land reform that has been remarkably successful. To this day many people outside Zimbabwe - though few within the country - still believe that the crisis revolves around land and that Mugabe's determination to force through land reform has some justification.

Mugabe has had 20 years to effect land reform. Even a cursory glance at his current "fast-track re-settlement programme" shows that it makes no sense in agricultural terms. The government claims it has already allocated 130,000 plots on ex-white commercial farms to peasant families from communal land areas. Before the rains come in November, these families are supposed to plough and plant five million hectares of land. Anyone who has driven around white-owned farms that have been invaded in the past year will have observed the reality: hundreds of trees felled to construct leaky shacks, and forlorn little groups of "war vets", whose agricultural activity is confined to planting a few mealies. Most of these people are in fact urban unemployed with little or no agricultural experience. They depend on government handouts of food and money and lack any of the inputs required to raise crops. The Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) reckons there are about 20,000-35,000 such people in the country. They are overwhelmingly young males, chosen for the "military" duties of harassing farmers and beating up their workers. There is little sign of the family groups crucial to real re-settlement. Any idea that this handful of people will become the functional replacements for thousands of commercial farmers and their nearly two million workers and dependants is ludicrous.

To understand what is really going on one must look back to the constitutional referendum of February 2000. The victory for the "No" vote, despite a government propaganda campaign that enjoyed a monopoly of the state media, the manipulation of state institutions, and, not least, the rigging of results in some areas, gave a huge boost to the burgeoning opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It was clear that Zanu-PF was heading for a historic - and probably very heavy - defeat in the impending parliamentary elections of June 2000. That prospect that was more than either Mugabe or the Zanu-PF elite could bear.

They made the crucial judgement that the key to the government's defeat had been the political and cultural influence of white commercial farmers over their workers and rural neighbours. During its war for independence in the 1970s, Zanu always dreamed that the final seizure of power would involve the elimination from the landscape of its oldest enemy, the white farmer. The intervention of the British, who presided over a constitutional handover of power with property rights protected and the promise of a properly funded land reform, spared Zimbabwe that apocalyptic conclusion. Now, at last, white influence had to be extirpated - at any cost.

The government's methods are tried and tested. When it felt itself challenged by dissidents in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s, a Zanu military force imposed itself throughout the area, obliterating any countervailing influence from the towns, the farmers or opposition parties. It forcibly "re-educated" the helpless peasantry to the Zanu view of life. Real or imagined foot-dragging was a sign of being a "sell-out", leading to severe beatings, torture and executions. At least five thousand people died and many more were victims of state violence. The result, from Mugabe's point of view, was eminently satisfactory. The dissidents collapsed; Joshua Nkomo submerged his Zapu party into the combined Zanu-PF, and there was no further challenge to the absolute hegemony of Zanu and Robert Mugabe.

In the wake of its February 2000 referendum defeat the government's response was much the same: a paramilitary force, the war vets, supported where necessary by state security forces, invaded farms to neutralise the "reactionary" influence of white farmers and the MDC. They used the same "re-education" methods - the enforced singing of Zanu-PF songs, wearing of Zanu-PF T-shirts and enrolment in the party itself, backed up by beatings, torture and, where necessary, executions.

White farmers have been publicly humiliated in front of their workers in order to break their authority. The government clearly hoped that at least some farmers would crack and display enough resistance to the farm invasions to "justify" a thorough-going military crackdown. But the farmers stolidly refused to offer such "provocation", even when some of their number were killed.

The terror of March-June 2000 was just sufficient to halt the MDC's momentum in the parliamentary elections of June 24-25. The Helen Suzman Foundation's election exit poll found that 13 per cent of voters acknowledged they had not voted for the party they really wanted, but voted in order to put a stop to the violence. Almost all of those would have been potential MDC supporters who voted for Zanu-PF. A typical case would be a farmworker, beaten by war vets, made to dig his own grave and told that he would be buried alive in it if his constituency fell to the MDC. With his employer unable to protect him and the police unwilling to, he had little real choice. Without this intimidation, the Foundation concluded that the MDC would have won 58 per cent of the vote to Zanu-PF's 36.5 per cent, enough to have gained 85-90 of the 120 elected seats.

Despite the terror, a small popular majority voted for opposition parties in June, with the MDC gaining 57 seats. Mugabe could not feel secure about winning the presidential contest due in 2002. Something new was necessary. His answer was the fast track re-settlement programme.

In its fully-fledged version the plan clearly envisages a series of mass population transfers. First, not only have white farms been invaded, but farmers are being actively driven off the land, prompting considerable numbers of urban whites to flee the country as well. Second, the nearly two million farmworkers and their families will either live under war vet domination or, more likely, will simply be broken up as a social group and forced to flee to wherever they can in the countryside - or abroad. Third, 650,000 peasants from the communal lands are to be re-settled on formerly white farms. Finally, large numbers of urban unemployed will be encouraged to move back to the countryside, thus turning them into peasants again and breaking up the MDC's urban base. At the end, Zanu-PF - like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouges - will enjoy unchallenged hegemony over the cowed and desperate masses.

Mugabe faces several obstacles. The first is that his policies have produced an economic crisis with hyperinflation, a plummeting currency and imminent famine. By early next year Zimbabwe will need an extra 500,000-650,000 tons of maize or face large-scale starvation. There is no foreign exchange to buy this food so it will have to be given as aid. Conscious that Mugabe has routinely made such emergency food distribution in the past conditional on support for Zanu-PF, foreign donors have made it clear that such aid will have to be distributed through neutral NGOs. The government is unlikely to agree to that condition.

Second, there is the prospect of sanctions targeted against the ruling elite by the United States and European Union and the possibility that Zimbabwe may be expelled from the Commonwealth at its heads of government meeting in Brisbane next month. The response of government spokesmen has been to suggest that such action will "force" the declaration of martial law and a state of emergency - and that travel restrictions imposed on the ruling elite will immediately be made general to the whole population.

That amounts to a threat of hostage-taking: if the West goes ahead with targeted sanctions, MDC leaders will be detained without trial and their party banned under martial law. Neither whites nor blacks will be able to flee abroad. Martial law would also give Mugabe the power to call off the presidential election, though it is equally likely that he would use the opportunity to stage-manage his own re-election.

So far Mugabe has been able to rely on South Africa's support. Not only has he been able to acquire essential fuel and electricity on credit, but President Thabo Mbeki has accepted the fiction that the crisis is all about land reform, and has appeared in public holding hands with Mugabe in a show of solidarity. Astonishingly, Mbeki has succeeded in passing off this policy of de facto support for Mugabe as "quiet diplomacy" aimed at the ultimate achievement of free and fair elections. Yet it has been obvious since early last year that free and fair elections are exactly what Mugabe wants to avoid. In his Hard Talk interview with the BBC's Tim Sebastian in August, Mbeki conceded that Mugabe has not heeded his "advice" and that "quiet diplomacy" has failed. But there is no real evidence that his "quiet diplomacy" has ever been more than a sham. By definition, because it is private, we are never told what Mbeki is saying to try to curb Mugabe and we only have his word that he has made any such effort at all. The facts of South African support, on the other hand, are there for all to see. In effect, Mbeki is on Mugabe's side because he is a black liberation leader, because his enemies include whites, and because it dovetails with Mbeki's "two nations" approach domestically.

Pretoria constantly stresses the threat of Zimbabwean economic collapse producing a flood of refugees - as if that collapse and that flood had not already been underway for the past 16 months. It does so in order to avoid acknowledging the obvious truth, that the crisis is political. In fact South Africa has plenty of leverage if it wants to use it. This was clearly demonstrated earlier this year when war vets began attacking businesses in Harare, including a number of South African-owned enterprises. Pretoria reacted sharply and Mugabe complied instantly. The attacks stopped forthwith and some war vets were even made scapegoats.

Mbeki is now badly squeezed by the approach of US and EU targeted sanctions and the probability of Commonwealth action against Mugabe. Not only is Mbeki currently chairman of the Commonwealth but the grounds for sanctions - human rights atrocities and the denial of democracy - are ones on which he can default only with grave damage to himself. If he appears to overlook these abuses questions will be raised as to the sincerity and seriousness of his commitment to democracy and good governance in general, and specifically as regards his pan-African projects. When one remembers the ANC's 30-year campaign for sanctions against apartheid and the role they played in bringing the party to power, it seems particularly brazen to argue against them.

Until now South Africa has been treated as the regional superpower and its advice and co-operation eagerly sought. If sanctions go ahead without Mbeki's support it will be a sign that he is being by-passed even in his own backyard. No matter how politely Western statesmen phrase it, they will regard South Africa as part of the problem, not part of the solution. The complete failure of leadership in the region has seen the initiative pass to the US and the EU.
As a result of these pressures Mbeki led last month's summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in the direction that it might fruitfully have taken about 16 months ago. As it is, the SADC task team seems a woefully late and inadequate proposal, and its summit resolution repeated the usual mantra about the Zimbabwe crisis being economic.

The scenes of looting, despoliation and refugee flight from Zimbabwe's farms have an epic quality. Those with long enough memories will recall how comparable scenes from Kenya during the Mau Mau emergency and the Congo in 1960-61 provided searing images of descent into anarchy.

Those images - together with the expulsion of Asians from East Africa - cast a shadow decades long, provoking emigration of skills, capital flight and a deep-seated queasiness about the possibility of stability and good governance in Africa. Those who wish to set Africa on another road must realise that mere lip-service for better governance will not do. What the world wants, faced with scenes like those, is zero tolerance - now.